Martins Denis, UFC - When Cesar Marscucci and Paulo Santos stepped in the Octagon at UFC Brazil nearly 11 years ago, they entered themselves into a history that involves the biggest MMA show on the planet and the biggest country of South America.
When Cesar Marscucci and Paulo Santos stepped in the Octagon at UFC Brazil nearly 11 years ago, they entered themselves into a history that involves the biggest MMA show on the planet and the biggest country of South America.
But, you may ask, who are these two fighters and how can they make history if that UFC was held in Sao Paulo, Brazil? Well, they were the two first Brazilian citizens to face each other in the Octagon, and even though they never did again, the importance of that fight to the Brazilian people is a lot different than it is to fans outside of the country. That said, you can guess what the fight for the UFC middleweight belt involving champion Anderson Silva and challenger Thales Leites in the main event of UFC 97 will represent for the nation.
As in all third world countries, the difficulties down here in Brazil, are a bit harder to deal with. A very unstable economy forces the natives from Brazil to search for and apply their efforts for better lives in sports. Soccer is the number one and most loved sport, but mixed martial arts, particularly the UFC, has become a light at the end of the tunnel for those who choose to walk this path.
Notoriety, money and respect are things that Brazilian soccer heroes achieve, and now UFC fighters exported from Brazil pursue these same rewards. Because of that, when a fighter who lives here has the opportunity of joining the UFC, they do not care if it is in the preliminary portion or main card; the fact of just being there means much more than you can imagine. It represents that, from now on, a man has to prove that he deserves to be there, and that is his dream.
Silva from Curitiba, Parana, and Leites from Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro, mix their similarities and differences into the same goal, to make this dream comes true. Their roads to the UFC were built with obstacles and tests and what one (Silva) has achieved, is what the other (Leites) wants to take, the 185-pound belt.
Since the announcement of this fight was made official, both camps started to come up with surgical strategies to overwhelm the opponent in the main event of this April 18th show in Montreal, Canada. And with that, the whole environment that surrounds a UFC fight added ingredients that we have never seen before. Of course, each team and their fans pick the combatant that they hope will come out the winner, but while Silva is the favorite, even among diehard fans nobody is really certain when the issue is who will leave the Octagon with (or without) the belt. And when you ask, the answer is the same: 50-50..
“For me there is nothing worse when we see two Brazilians confronting each other in an international promotion. That is terrible for making a choice,” says Paulo Borracha, an old school commentator who has been in the game for years, and who, of course, did not pick a winner in the next middleweight showdown for the UFC belt.
Clearly, the names Anderson and Thales (in Brazil it is common to call them by their first name) are now being spoken outside the MMA media, and it starts to elevate this pair to a status that they could have not imagined years ago. Two or three appearances right after the match became official opened the eyes of potential fans that do not pay attention to the sport, but who are curious to see how these two countrymen became important in the UFC. "I want to see," the new fans say, and what people who have been in this game since the early 90s hope is that a week before and one after, these two middleweights make themselves the most important part of the transitioning that will make the UFC bigger in all corners of Brazil.
One of the most interesting things I have seen was during a game among two important soccer teams of Rio de Janeiro. Luiz C. Lima, a man who has a big screen TV in his house, is accustomed to inviting friends over to watch the games. During the breaks in the action, where a lot of commercials pop up, the one talking about the fight between the Brazilians grabs the viewers’ attention. These same viewers used to change the PPV channel when MMA appeared, but the passion of the soccer man stays focused on the commercial that shows Anderson Silva defending his belt against Thales Leites in UFC 97. And what grabbed the man’s attention were the two Brazilians, and this is relatively easy to deduce, because in the same commercial was the bout between Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Chuck Liddell, which passed unnoticed.
"When is this?" he asks "[It] seems to be an interesting brawl," comments Lima, who wants to see the commercial again because he did not catch all details.
Even more of the reaction that this duel is causing in Brazil is coming from casual fans, the ones that know who Silva, Leites and many others from different countries are, but have not accurately entered in their brains what, for example, "UFC Fight Night" means and how Leites made himself the number one contender.
Givanilson Silva, a 25 year old operational analyst, never watched a UFN or a TUF Finale, and only knew Gabriel Gonzaga fought Shane Carwin when he watched a replay of UFC 96. But when the issue is "The Spider", his opinion is very clear.
"Two Brazilians and seeing my idol [Silva] gives me no choices. I'm anxious for this fight and I cannot miss it on April 18th,” said the small man, pointing to the 4/18 date in his calendar.
Ten years ago, a struggle involving a Brazilian with a background in Muay Thai against another with roots in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu would generate the rivalry often seen in soccer here. But once the "grudge match" is replaced with professionalism, the only response left is for the fan that follows UFC, but who has other opinions regarding the title match.
"Anderson will prevail with his stand-up skills; if I had to bet, I would put all my money on him. But in my opinion Demian Maia should be the challenger,” explains Gerson Cardoso Jr. of Rio De Janeiro, a commercial manager by profession and BJJ blue belt as well. “But these guys [Silva and Leites] will mark a huge chapter in the history of UFC and Brazil. Brazilians are going to clash in the number one event in the world and in a category that in my opinion is the toughest of the whole promotion."
The high level of competition in the UFC is the main reason that only one Brazilian has had the opportunity to challenge another for a belt after more than 97 editions of the show. And while Brazil is known as a factory of fighters, other countries are also producing fighters of a world-class level. But suffice to say that as April 18th approaches, if the Brazilian champions that the UFC had/has in its history were not enough for a national commotion here, Leites and Silva are the two men that are.